Thursday, 3 September 2009

English and the ordinary

In his book Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies (2003) Ian Reid argued that what we do, or until recently did, in school English had its origins in Wordsworth. Wordsworth, that is, rather than Matthew Arnold, as has often been claimed.

I felt a bit uncomfortable in acknowledging that there was truth in what Reid said since I've never felt much in sympathy with the Romantics. (Just lately I've begun to find Wordsworth both more interesting and more rewarding as a poet, not least thanks to Stephen Gill’s biography.)

Reid seemed to be right: even English at the London Institute of Education in the 1960s, emphasising as it did the importance of language in mental development and saying little about schools of literary study, owed more than a little, perhaps by way of F.R. Leavis, to Wordsworth and the Romantics. Parts of that Romantic heritage now look worth reasserting.

What triggered this posting is a coincidence of reading some Wordsworth and talking to a friend who’s been teaching the Welsh Board A Level Lit that allows the teacher to choose – freely, not from a list -- a group of thematically linked books for a big coursework assignment. This year Richard has had outstanding work from an unpromising group around the theme of Madness (with a feminist or gender edge) and the books Jane Eyre, Emily Dickinson’s poems, Syvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Ken Kesey’sOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, all works he values highly. When I heard that list, I found myself feeling uneasy, despite the scheme’s evident success. Something quite deep in my formation as an English teacher was objecting. So what I'm doing here is examining my reaction.

In the second, 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads (in which his contribution outweighed that of Coleridge) Wordsworth included what he claimed were innovative lyrics and ballads such as Simon Lee, Old Man Travelling, The Last of the Flock, The Old Cumberland Beggar, Goody Blake and Harry Gill and The Idiot Boy. According to Gill (pp.140-1) these were innovative in relation both to his earlier poetry and to popular works that were full of incident, sensation and colourful character (though doesn’t add that poetry of the type Wordsworth was promoting wasn’t lacking in the magazines of the time). Whereas his own poetry had in the past followed eighteenth century models in ‘work[ing] from the general to the particular’…. [t]he ‘figures and incidents’ serving identified abstractions such as ‘Truth’, ‘Justice’ or ‘Freedom’, ‘[the] new poems… originate in a particular observation of a figure or an incident and they concentrate on it intensely, as if depicting it in all its particularity will unveil its significance’ (quotes from Gill, p.140).

Those ‘figures and incidents’ were, moreover, ordinary, as Wordsworth saw it: regular, uneducated rural people doing and experiencing things (including economic and political oppression) that were part of normal life outside the cities. Part of his purpose was pedagogic, in a moral and political sense: the audience in whom he sought to ‘raise awareness’ was ‘the legislating, voting, rate-paying, opinion-forming middle class’, and ‘…what the reader’s awakened sensibility was asked to comprehend was the pathos, tragedy, or dignity inherent in the burbling of an idiot boy, in the gratitude of an enfeebled old man, or even in the shuffling gait of an old Cumberland beggar.’ It was necessary to look to unsophisticated people in their ‘natural’ (i.e. rural) state (in ‘”low and rustic life”’) to discern ‘”the primary laws of our nature”’ (188).

He had to explain this purpose in his Preface because readers ‘who had thrilled to fast-moving incident, machinery [of plot, presumably], and colour in translations of German ballads or in Gothic fiction such as Lewis’s The Monk’ would not understand the point of poems about ordinary characters and unsensational incidents. For Wordsworth, it represented a corruption of taste that readers’ emotional responses could be aroused only by striking incident (so that even Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was open to objection). We should learn to be moved by the sort of ‘”human passions, human characters, and human incidents”’ that could be found in ordinary people and ordinary lives, and a job of poetry, beyond ‘”producing immediate pleasure”’, was to help to teach us: ‘Wordsworth could never have spoken of a purely literary act. For him poetry was a moral agent or it was nothing’ (189).

Wordsworth explains that, in Gill’s words, ‘[h]is work will be found unlike the poetry of the day…in language, in subject-matter, but above all in its tendency to disclose the quiet, the simple, the unregarded aspects of human nature. It is a poetry of discrimination, in which “the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling.”’

By that he means, I imagine, that the situations engage us not because they are in themselves noteworthy but because they happen to characters with whom and to worlds in which we have, through the poetry, become involved. ‘”For the human mind is capable of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants.”’

NOW note the connections with the English taught in schools in the 1960s and 70s. The first was a pronounced favouring of ordinary life over exotic incident, of relations and transactions in the familiar urban neighbourhood rather than thrilling action and spectacular evil in the imagined worlds of detectives, spies, ghosts, pirates, space, boarding schools and stables.

Second, the point in addressing characters and situations from ordinary life was to observe them with some intensity so that ‘depicting [life] in all its particularity [would] unveil its significance’. Bad secondary modern textbooks of the 1950s contained scenes from ordinary (usually rural or small town life) [1], but in the children’s writing valued by the ‘New English’ of the grammar and comprehensive schools and in the favoured authors such as Lawrence the descriptions were so vivid as to appear charged with significance, suggesting a sort of transcendence in the way that descriptions of nature had in Wordsworth and still did in Laurie Lee, Ted Hughes and writing from progressive primary schools (Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire, the West Riding). You didn’t have to go to the worlds of heroes to escape banality: wonder and marvellousness was there all around you if you only looked.

Third, there was a moral and political agenda, and I think a decent and admirable one. In Southwark and Bermondsey, for instance, where I started teaching in Walworth School, the working class kids in the schools, were, many of them, like their families, quite simply ‘the salt of the earth’: honest, generous, warm, responsible, intelligent. (You can get the flavour of them from Tommy Steele’s terrific autobiography, Bermondsey Boy.) But nothing that was around for them to read reflected them and their lives. What they read from popular literature and saw on television related to worlds other than theirs and people unlike them and it could often be through an English teacher that they first encountered anything representing scenes that felt closer to home (even though they might be geographically distant, as in extracts from Sons and Lovers).

In English the lives they knew, including their own, could be their own subject-matter as writers and in writing about them they could confirm and reinforce a belief that the everyday qualities of people you knew embodied values that counted.

We don’t now use the term ‘virtue’ without embarrassment except in philosophical circles, but the concept is valid and necessary. Without being preachy, good teachers still teach virtue by setting examples, acting as models and creating a moral climate in which good qualities are valued. It seems right also that English should still, as literary education always did, induce reflection on virtue and promote it by representations in books; and, since we’re not educating Roman aristocrats or Renaissance princes, that the models should include admirable people and behaviour from ordinary life.

In fact one could argue the need is now all the greater since the qualities that make figures from popular culture into young people’s models often have little to do with virtue.

Certainly, the lives of ordinary people are now more widely and adequately represented than they were sixty years ago, in television and film as well as novels, but the need for working class school students to write themselves into a conviction of their own people’s worth is as pressing as ever. (The fact that the working class is now far more ethnically diverse doesn’t remove the issue but calls for a principled emphasis on those qualities that count as virtues in enlightened -- i.e. Enlightenment-derived -- philosophical traditions.)

So I still value books that confer dignity on ordinary lives and that teach children to find significance in the ordinary as well as the extreme and exotic, and to find pleasure and stimulation in depictions of regular existence – in relationships, settings, dialogue – and not just in action and incident, in ‘fast-moving incident, machinery, and colour’. For its espousal of those aims the ‘New English' of the 1960s retains my respect.

In university English studies, meanwhile, I rather get the impression that it’s been precisely ‘action and incident’, or at any rate ‘colour’, that’s been getting the attention: plot, in which Leavis showed little interest; the melodrama of Gothic; revenants, cyborgs and dopplegängers; the marginal and abnormal: madness, deviance... The ‘quiet, the simple, the unregarded aspects of human nature’ no longer get much of a look-in.

I've indicated why I think that loss could be unfortunate: it’s important that literature take interest and recognise value in the lives of people who are not rich, privileged or powerful.

But some considerations weigh the other way.

First, granting that it’s a good thing for literature and English to remind us of what’s admirable in the ordinary that’s under our noses, the qualities of ordinary people in their ordinary lives, we no longer have the equivalent of Wordsworth’s simple, good rustic existence to point to. The virtues no doubt still exist but no discrete group is their reservoir. The working class is criss-crossed with divisions of many kinds and everybody has influences and discourses flowing through them from all over the place, not least the global media and internet. You can’t now have a working class English curriculum that draws in the same unproblematic way for its moral exemplars on a single shared community and its values.

Second, what literature does an adolescent need? It’s still true, on the one hand, that Lawrence is worth reading, at least for me (I don’t know about today’s school students). Recently, impelled by something I read about him in the paper and curious to know how he’d read now after many years, finding I still had Sons and Lovers, I turned to a random page, started reading and found an hour had passed in complete absorption. I was struck by how real, how vivid, how definite and specific the people and relationships were, and how clear Lawrence was about what being a strong woman meant in terms of her responses, initiatives, offerings and refusals. That and the electric tension in the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue and, more generally, the drama, were what made the book a terrific read.

That can’t be said, on the other hand, about much that’s been written about growing up in working class communities. The prose is often drab, the world evoked banal and petty – and unexciting for both students and me. Sometimes, reading such stuff, I feel a terror of ever being trapped inside such petty, restricted, claustrophobically local worlds and long for a dose of Shakespearean kings, Byronic adventurers, Huckleberry Finns, Augie Marches (that’s Saul Bellow’s magnificent novel), little Oskars (The Tin Drum) and Midnight’s Children. The values behind Wordsworth-Lawrence-Leavis-Sillitoe-New English are Protestant -- and inclined to be dour. The books are short on comic exuberance. The carnivalesque humour and wildness of Shakespeare and Dickens has disappeared. The fecundity and richness of life manifested in Wordsworth’s natural world (though hardly his human one) and in English nature poetry generally aren’t mirrored in those accounts of mother getting ready to go out or father on his allotment: ‘from his pocket he drew the many-coloured seed packets…’ – who cares?

As a teenager I didn’t on the whole read the books Leavis would have wanted me to. Rather what I was after was precisely other worlds, worlds different from mine, those of Steinbeck, Iris Murdoch, Sartre’s France under occupation, Hemingway’s Spain, Holden Caulfield’s family-free adventure (including prostitute). It was a bit later that I read The Bell Jar and that was equally powerful. As for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I've read that for the first time in the last week and my friend is right: it’s a great novel, in the exuberant Huckleberry Finn, Catch 22, Saul Bellow tradition – and a terrific moral exemplar. I'd give that to adolescents with no hesitation. And be confident I was doing my job as an English teacher. (American Psycho still to go.)

Yes, these books explore experiences and situations outside the run-of-the-mill ordinary and so violate the pedagogic programme of Wordsworth and of aspects of 1960s English. But so they need to, even within the terms of English as a moral education, not simply because of the appeal to students of the extreme and outré but because knowing the human condition includes seeing it in extremity.

[1] Medway, P. (1990). Into the sixties: English and English society at a time of change. In I. Goodson & P. Medway (Eds.), Bringing English to Order: the history and politics of a school subject (pp. 1-46). London: Falmer.

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